Lowell Bergman examines the increasingly lucrative business of human smuggling at the U.S.–Mexico border and the American border officials corrupted by the trade. Drawing upon interviews conducted in Tijuana and San Diego as well as dramatic undercover surveillance video from U.S. law enforcement, he will discuss how this illicit and growing business has spurred an increase in corruption cases investigated by the FBI and other federal agencies.
Lowell Bergman is the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Professor of Investigative Reporting at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a producer/correspondent for the PBS documentary series “Frontline.” He has spent 30 years covering stories that touch on Mexico, the war on drugs, money laundering and the CIA.
Read "Border Agents, Lurd by the Other Side," and "Former Border Agents Arrested," two New York Times Articles with Lowell Bergman as contributing reporter.
Crossing the Line: The Business of Human Smuggling
By Yvonne Cabrales
Crammed into the trunk of a car, undocumented migrants arrive at the U.S.–Mexico border and are waved through by a corrupt border patrol agent. It is an increasingly common scenario, and one that the FBI has only recently begun to investigate. Who are these rogue border agents, and how do they aid the smugglers they were hired to apprehend?
Professor Lowell Bergman addressed these questions at a lecture sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS). A journalism professor here at UC Berkeley and a respected reporter famous for his four decades of in-depth investigative work, Bergman described the extent of human smuggling at the border and, in particular, the role of turncoat U.S. Border Patrol guards. The event wrapped up with a clip of Bergman’s documentary on the subject, “Mexico: Crimes at the Border,” which aired on “Frontline” last May, followed by a brief question and answer session.
Bergman’s ties to this subject matter run deep. He was born and raised in San Diego, Tijuana’s sister-city and the busiest border crossing in the world. And while he has covered a broad range of subjects since launching his journalism career in 1969, his hometown and its high stakes border crossing have kept drawing him back. Explaining what prompted his most recent investigation into rogue U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, Bergman noted, “Corruption on [the Mexican] side of the border — a lot has been done on it. What,” he asked, “about corruption on this side of the border?”
As sociologist Laura Agustín wrote in a review of Bergman’s “Frontline” documentary, “The stereotype of illegal migration imagines three clear roles: the migrant trying to cross, the smuggler or trafficker helping to flout the law and the police officer attempting to stop them. The reality is often much more complicated.” Government officials report that over 100 border patrol agents have been caught helping immigrants cross the border illegally in the last five years; another 200 investigations are ongoing. Most of them were bribed by human smugglers (known as coyotes), who were in turn hired by undocumented immigrants to help them cross.
In the documentary, Bergman deploys a compelling mix of interviews, research findings and FBI records to make his case that agents are increasingly being swayed by the staggering amount of money changing hands. Human smuggling is a lucrative business: crossing through the desert can cost upwards of $2,000 while crossing with counterfeit papers can top $10,000. In this environment, bribe payments can easily surpass patrol agents’ salaries.
Bergman described the recent case of Michael Gilliland, a hitherto exemplary Customs and Border Patrol officer, commended for his service, who was caught on video in an undercover FBI operation as he waved through a car containing undocumented immigrants. Gilliland made hundreds of thousands of dollars in his stint as a “corrupted gatekeeper” as he periodically waved cars through the Otay Mesa Point of Entry near San Diego.
Bergman pointed out several key components to this story: the risk and cost of crossing the increasingly militarized border, the discrepancy between a rise in funding for border security and the lack of effective oversight to screen for corrupt U.S. agents, and the practical consequences of putting up a wall along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, as proposed by the Department of Homeland Security.
The business of leaving and arriving are fraught with risk: a 2007 Mexican congressional report notes that at least 4,500 Mexicans have died trying to cross the border since 1994, the year “Operation Gatekeeper” went into effect. In an attempt to minimize their risks, many prospective migrants tap into the network of human smugglers, drug barons and corrupt border patrol agents that exist to bring them across the border.
Bergman outlined the way this network typically functions: First, a smuggler pays off a drug lord for “protection.” At the border checkpoint, the prospective migrants remain hidden in the vehicle while a shady patrol agent looks the other way. Finally, on the U.S. side, the immigrants are held captive in a private home — sometimes at gunpoint — until a friend or family member can arrive to pay the pick-up fee. If something goes wrong and the migrant is apprehended, the whole process just starts over. As Bergman put it, “If people try to get across the border, they eventually get across . . . Part of the fee to the smuggler is the guarantee that they’ll get you across. If they fail the first time, they’ll try again.”
The discovery of corrupt border agents throws into sharp relief the practicality of the proposed border fence that the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service projects will cost more than $49 billion, an estimate that doesn’t include the cost of acquiring private land. When Bergman was asked for his opinion of the wall, he responded that if it is ever completed, it may well deter illegal crossings. However, “building a fence and wall at the border and putting more border agents down there creates a bigger pool of potential corruption targets.”
And there does seem to be cause for concern. In recent years there has been a steady increase in the hiring of new border agents without a concomitant rise in oversight of their activities. This is compounded by the problem of who is hired in the first place. As Bergman noted in one of the documentary’s interviews, “The inspector general of the [Department of Homeland Security] told us that another thing he really worries about with the expansion of the Border Patrol is the mass hiring of people and a lowering of standards. They have found real problems — people who were convicted felons who were allowed in the border patrol.”
Bergman also argued that the threat of terrorists entering the United States from Mexico has been exaggerated. As Agustín wrote in her analysis of Bergman’s documentary, “Proponents of the militarization of the border have used the threat of terrorist attacks in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 to justify the build-up. But Bergman noted that there is no evidence that terrorists have ever entered through the Mexico–U.S. border.”
What is the solution, then? While Bergman did not speak directly about future strategies, he did point out that “institutional confusion” at the Department of Homeland Security “seems to be part of the problem.” The difficulties facing the DHS were summed up by “Rafael,” a human smuggler from Tijuana, who told Bergman, “The smuggling people business … will stop only when there are no borders. Unless you can stop poverty or hunger, it will never stop, because people will always want to help their families.”
Lowell Bergman is the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Professor of Investigative Reporting at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a producer/correspondent for the PBS documentary series “Frontline.” He presented his investigative research on human smuggling, “Mexico: Crimes at the Border” at the Center of Latin American Studies Forum on February 2, 2009.
Yvonne Cabrales is a Master’s student in Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley.